The other day I was talking with my friends about the severe problem our society has with manic depression. By our society I mean the U.S. but I think what we discussed spans across time and cultures. As an undergraduate I studied psychology and the reason I chose it as my major was because I have always wondered what causes mental illness and have wanted to understand the causes so I could help people living with these conditions. I won’t even pretend to not have a position on the current treatment protocol for these diseases, I think there is a lot left to be discovered about the workings of the human mind and that using the main approach of drug induced chemical alterations to treat these conditions leaves a lot to be desired.
One thing that has always struck me about the U.S. is that we have one of the highest standards of living in the world yet more people are unhappy here than anywhere else and that has always puzzled me. I think the answer may lie in the connection I have noticed between cultural influences based on materialism. One thing I think that holds back modern psychology is the lack of understanding of the spirit. Modern psychology like most western scientific disciplines has little room for anything that can’t be tested empirically through the senses and since spirituality by its very essence is more unseen than seen it is thought of as more of a belief than a fact and it keeps certain ideas regarding this from being taken seriously by many of the top universities and psychologists who are the authority on this subject. I will submit however that there are empirical ways to show at least how implementing a more spiritually based form of psychological therapy can be measured by brain activity and how the individuals respond to treatments.
So what’s so important about integrating concepts of spirituality with psychology? That’s where the idea of materialism comes into play. From a purely materialist point of view the only thing that should matter to our sense of well being should be how much we acquire physically in this life. That’s all fine and dandy but there are a lot of people who don’t have that much. So is that the reason for all of the depression and mood disorders in the U.S.? By that logic people in far more impoverished regions of the world should be unhappier, yet this is not the case. And what about those who do have everything they could possibly need and more, surely they should experience an above average emotional state than those who do not, yet again this isn’t always the way it plays out. So it seems fairly evident that being well off doesn’t always equal satisfaction or even contentment, but I think there is a connection to this concept and the manic depression problem found in the United States.
I think the connection lies in what people derive happiness from and that if we are to take the environmental and socioeconomic conditions of this evidence it appears there is something driving the human condition other than having a “high standard of living”. And again I am in no way trying to discount the importance of having our needs met, I’m merely pointing out the idea that we need more than food and shelter for sustenance. With manic depression what I see happening is multifaceted. First of all I see a culture with a pervasive commercial media promising happiness in every form imaginable and secondly I see a mindset (especially in the field of psychology) that gives the impression that people have no control of their thoughts and emotions and are therefore victims of something much larger than themselves. It seems to me that the environment we live in has a very big influence on the way we think and how we perceive ourselves, so if I am immersed in a consumerist society that claims that if I just buy the next thing all my problems will be solved than that is the type of mentality I will be most likely develop. For those of us who have had grown up in the U.S. it isn’t unusual to get the rush of buying something new just to have it followed by a certain feeling of emptiness when the “newness” of that item has diminished. This is where I think the manic depressive mind starts to develop. This thought pattern is expounded when the financial aspect is brought into play. When we continually buy more and more then we must continually earn more and more to continue this cycle. This often leads to depression based on the mere reality that we now have to work even harder to pay for whatever it is we have purchased to make us happier. Sometimes this even leads to debt which makes us feel like we aren’t in control of our life which is another very valid reason for developing depressive thoughts. Combine all of this with the media constantly projecting images of “successful” celebrities giving people the perception that achieving this type of status is the only way to really feel self worth and you have the makings for a severely manic depressive culture.
So what can we do about all of this? Well for one we can try to resist the temptation to fall into these patterns in the first place and for those of us who have these patterns deeply engrained in us we can work on overcoming them. The grass is seldom actually greener on the other side, it is a never ending promise like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You have power over your thoughts! We live in a society where the prevalent psychological theory seems to be that you can’t help how you feel and you are just a victim of circumstance, but we are actually the ones who decide what thoughts our minds dwell on, no one else. I recommend meditation to try to tame the mind. No one becomes a pro at anything over night so it takes practice and a degree of discipline to be able to do this, but it is absolutely achievable and effective. Try this simple exercise the next time you are feeling manic or depressed. Focus on the belly, try taking in deep breathes to a count of four allowing the belly to expand while you breathe in and contract as you exhale. If any thoughts tries to enter the mind (which they will) bring your thought back to the count of four and try not to allow the mind to wander away from counting. After you practice this for a few weeks you should notice that this becomes easier to do. Eventually just like training wheels you will be able to stop counting and just focus on the breath without thoughts continually bothering your meditative practice. It only takes a five to ten minute a day practice to get started, but I believe that if you have success with it you will find yourself desiring to occupy this state of consciousness more and more. It has been my experience that implementing this into my life has made it easier to deal with adverse situations and has increased my sense of contentment. Life can be hard sometimes, but if you live in a state of mind where you tell yourself you will only be happy if certain conditions are met you will find yourself being disappointed a great deal. I am not saying not to have goals in life just don’t make your focus that achieving those goals is the only way you will be content. Clear those expectations from your mind, take a deep breath and be thankful to be alive!